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DOJ: Ferguson Police Routinely Discriminate Against African Americans


The Ferguson Missouri police officer who shot and killed Michael Brown last year was not indicted by a grand jury. The officer, Darren Wilson, did resign from the department. But since then, we have been waiting for the Justice Department to weigh in. And now it has. A report from the department, due out later today, concludes that the Ferguson, Mo., police department regularly violates the Constitution. Civil rights investigators say the police discriminate against African-Americans, arresting them and charging them more often than white people. And they say the police and local courts are more focused on generating revenue than protecting public safety. NPR justice correspondent Carrie Johnson is in the studio with me. Carrie, good morning.

CARRIE JOHNSON, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So a lot to cover here in this report. Let's start with one important open question; that was whether the white police officer who killed the unarmed, black teenager, Michael Brown, could face federal charges as part of this criminal rights investigation.

JOHNSON: Law enforcement sources are telling me the Justice Department has not found enough evidence, David, to charge Darren Wilson with any federal civil rights violations. But they did turn up plenty of evidence to explain why Ferguson erupted in violent protests after his death. David, the numbers here tell the story. Ferguson is about 67 percent black. But the police force is almost entirely white. And the Justice Department found that 85 percent of people stopped in their cars were black. Ninety-three percent of the people charged in those stops were black - and the same pattern with the use of force. In about 88 percent of cases where law enforcement use force, black people were the ones who were targeted.

GREENE: Well, and this kind of criticism - I mean, it went beyond the police department. The federal investigators found a lot to criticize about the local court system as well. What exactly was that about?

JOHNSON: I'm hearing from sources that Justice found that courts slap fines on people for petty offenses, things like parking violations and traffic tickets. And these particularly hurt poor people who get sent to jail when they can't pay. Ferguson has about 21,000 people, but 16,000 of them had arrest warrants issued by the courts. It just fosters a sense of illegitimacy among people who live there.

GREENE: Well, Carrie, everything you're describing here - I mean, huge numbers in the police department, in the court system. But did the Justice Department find clear evidence of racial bias?

JOHNSON: Justice Department investigators did review emails of police and court system employees. I'm told they found several emails that reflected racist tendencies or bias. Two of them were described to me. There are several more, though. We don't know who sent these emails or who received them; the names have been redacted.

But, David, one of the emails from 2008 said President Obama wouldn't stay in the White House for long because, quote, "what black man holds a steady job for four years?" There's another email from 2011 - supposed to be a joke I guess - about a black woman terminating her pregnancy, then getting a check from Crime Stoppers, the implication being that terminating a black life meant stopping crime.

GREENE: It's going to be interesting to see the response when this report does come out later today. So what happens next?

JOHNSON: It's up to Ferguson officials to decide whether to settle with the Justice Department or to fight justice in court. Justice is going to be looking for changes in culture as measured by hiring and training and data collection on use of force, also changes in the court system. But real change, David, could take years. And not just in Ferguson, but in neighboring jurisdictions, too.

GREENE: All right. That's NPR's Carrie Johnson speaking to us on the day the Justice Department comes out with a report on the Ferguson, Mo., Police Department. Carrie, thanks very much.

JOHNSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Carrie Johnson is a justice correspondent for the Washington Desk.